I come from Los Angeles, a part of the world where mustard is an invasive species. When people from the rest of the United States settled in Southern California during the great real estate booms of the 1920s and 1940s, they brought with them non-native species like mustard and snails thinking that they would enhance the natural environment. The snails they brought because some entrepreneur thought he would make a killing raising escargot. What he got was a plague to all gardeners. The mustard importation was easier to understand: it is a beautiful plant, and it looks especially lovely on those hills which run down to the sea adjacent to the Pacific Coast Highway. On an overcast, marine-layer day, the yellow mustard plants are beautiful to behold against the grey sky. The problem is that they are the horticultural equivalent of snails. They don’t belong there, they have no predators to control them, and they run rampant over every species that does.
Now I’m sure that Jesus never meant to compare the kingdom of heaven to a predatory non-native species, but that’s the way things work in a postmodern world. So when I hear a parable like this, I can’t help hearing both its original and its current cultural context. I hear it, as an Indian theologian I know says, in stereo: in one ear I hear Jesus in his native Palestinian biome; in the other I can’t help but hear him in my own. In one ear, the parable of the mustard seed is about the mystery of how God’s hidden purposes work: this tiny seed, over time, becomes a big bush. In the other ear, the parable morphs into a meditation on how the native and the new can abide together in the same neat little seedy package.
Today’s Gospel asks us to consider the seed as the image of two divine processes. When we think about the seed, it embodies two mysterious truths. The first is that something small can generate something big—“mighty oaks from little acorns grow”. The second is that all this happens in secret and over time. Who would think, looking at a redwood seed (also very tiny), that it could produce such a giant sequioa? And, how is it that after almost endless waiting one day you look at the seeds you have scattered and see new life sprouting where there was only lifeless dirt before?
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. [Mark 4.30-32]
The first part of Jesus’s teaching this morning comes to us as an image of something small becoming something great. Henry Thoreau, the author of Walden, wrote many other essays about his observations of nature, and one of his last writings was an essay called “The Dispersion of Seeds.” Late in his life, Thoreau became interested in what he called “the succession of forest trees,” how meadows become forests, the way in which, through seed dispersal, trees invade, colonize, and come to dominate an area. Here’s a brief example of the way he saw this process:
As I went by a pitch-pine wood the other day, I saw a few little ones springing up in the pasture from these seeds which had been blown from the wood. There was a puny one which came from the seed this year, just noticeable in the sod, and I came near mistaking it for a single sprig of moss. . . . What a feeble beginning for so long-lived a tree! . . . Thus, from pasture this portion of the earth’s surface becomes forest—because the seeds of the pine, and not of moss and grass alone, fell on it. These which are now mistaken for mosses in the grass will perhaps become lofty trees and endure two hundred years. [Henry D. Thoreau, “The Dispersion of Seeds”]
Now I quote this to show that what Thoreau sees when he looks at a pine tree is what Jesus sees when he looks at a mustard bush: something large that had its origins in something tiny. It has been customary for preachers to read Jesus’s teaching about this natural process as a metaphor for the church. But I’m not sure that Jesus thought very much about the church. True, he did think about his companions and his friends, the ones we call his disciples. And what he thought about them had a lot to do with their lowly, small place in the strata of society.
Jesus was a Palestinian Jewish peasant. He lived and worked and taught in the world of Palestinian Jewish peasants. These were men and women who lived in a country occupied by the Roman Empire. They worked with their hands, fishing and farming. They were heavily taxed to support the occupying Roman army. They were hungry. They were poor. They were subject to another nation. They were at the bottom of the economic and social ladder.
It seems to me that, when talking about how little seeds become mighty bushes, Jesus is not predicting a world wide Empire-like church: instead, he’s talking about the worth and dignity of the small thing in and of itself. You and I tend to be impressed by greatness. But Jesus looks at the great thing and notices, as we should notice, that even the great thing owes its existence to a small thing.
The first point this morning is this: as a society, we are going through a time of readjustment, a time when we are asked to rethink our values and priorities in the light of changing economic and environmental realities. The dignity of the mustard seed should say something to us about the dignity of the small thing in our own lives. Our worth and dignity do not come from inflated definitions of worldly status. If you are up against it financially or professionally, if you feel a loss of worth because of changes in the economy, consider, as Jesus’s friends did, the mustard seed. “From now on,” says Paul in today’s Epistle, “we regard no one from a human point of view.” [2 Corinthians 5.16] No matter how it looks to others, even the mustard seed has dignity and value in God’s view of things, as do you.
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come. [Mark 4.26-29]
The mystery of this parable is not only that something small becomes something big; it is also that its revelation takes place over time. You and I and the birds who nest in the bush’s branches have to wait for the mysterious purposes of the seed to do its work. Remember that Jesus and his listeners lived before our modern understanding of plant biology. Even when the seed’s work is finished, how it happened is still a mystery.
Here is Henry Thoreau again:
Nature works no faster than need be. If she has to produce a bed of cress or radishes, she seems to us swift; but if it is a pine or oak wood, she may seem to us slow or wholly idle, so leisurely and secure is she. She knows that seeds have many other uses than to reproduce their kind. If every acorn of this year’s crop is destroyed, or the pines bear no seed, never fear. She has more years to come. It is not necessary that a pine or an oak should bear fruit every year, as it is that a pea vine should. [Henry D. Thoreau, “The Dispersion of Seeds”]
Jesus spoke to men and women who were impatient: they wanted freedom, power, food, justice, and they had waited a long time for them. When he asked them to consider the mystery of the seed and its workings, Jesus was using that image to suggest that God’s processes work themselves out over time. It’s not that he’s asking us to lie back and wait. Far from it; Jesus always enlists us as agents in spreading God’s reign. There is, after all, someone in this story who scatters the seed in order that it may germinate. Instead he’s assuring us that, even when we think that nothing is happening, God and God’s love and faithfulness and blessing are always at work on our behalf.
Like Jesus’s friends and companions, you also may be impatient. You may be at a place in your life where something has to change but you don’t see when or how that can happen. You may feel depressed or anxious about your relationships, your work, your health, even your inner worth. Each of us, every adult human being, lives through stretches of time like this, when nothing seems to work and when there doesn’t seem to be any reason to go on living. If this is true for you right now, then take hold of the image which Jesus offers you this morning. Consider the seed. It is small, yet it produces something great. So it has dignity and worth in itself. Consider the seed: someone plants it and nothing seems to happen. And then, as if by magic, one day it sprouts and produces “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”
As small as you may feel, you have worth and purpose and dignity. As frustrated as you may feel, God’s purposes are always, even now, working themselves out in your life. Consider the seed, how it testifies to God’s mysterious love and faithfulness. And come forward to be fed now in the bread and wine made from the bounty of God’s harvest, which itself started out small, grew over time, and now becomes more abundant than any one of us could ask for or imagine. Amen.